Alyson Walker, businesswoman-marketing machine-digital guru-sports advocate

“I use my lessons learned from sport all the time. Whether at work or on the field, it’s all about the same things: determination, hard work and preparation.”

So much of sport training and preparation can be applied to life in general. When I think of the mantras I’ve chanted to myself during 500m repeats or seemingly endless wind sprints, I’m always reminded of how important they are to incorporate into the bigger picture, after the game or the workout. “Never dwell on the negative.” “Focus on the task at hand.” “Tune out the white noise.” Even (or maybe especially) “Rest as hard as you train.”

Alyson Walker, more than almost anyone I know, has exemplified how to put that theory into practice.

I met Alyson several years ago when we were both playing ultimate Frisbee. First, we were opponents; I played for Ottawa’s Stella and she was on Toronto’s Lotus. Then, toward the end of my ultimate days (i.e. pre-injury), I had the privilege of playing with her on the Ottawa-Toronto team Capitals. It was easily one of the highlights of my years in the sport. Alyson stood out in every way. She led the team not only as a starting player, but also as co-captain. She inspired everyone through her outstanding physical performance, and her incredible capacity to support others and bring out the best in them.

Alyson, playing for Canada’s Capitals, makes a bid in the 2009 U.S.A. Ultimate Championship semi-final against Boston’s Brute Squad

“Over the past seven years, Alyson has shown me what makes a kickass Canadian. Her passion for sport, work and life is infectious. The mood changes when she’s around; she pushes and inspires everyone around her to keep working and never give up.” Danielle Fortin, Capitals co-captain, two-time Canadian National Champion, 2004 Junior World Champion (Team Canada)

Alyson’s commitment to always giving 100% has garnered her a long list of awards and accomplishments. As co-captain of Lotus, she led the team to win gold at the Canadian Ultimate Championships (CUC) in 2004, 2006 and 2009, and was also named MVP in 2006. As co-captain of Capitals, she has consistently helped the team climb the rankings during the highly competitive American fall series, leading to an unprecedented spot in the finals in 2010. (Capitals finished second, with San Francisco’s Fury taking first place for the fifth consecutive year.) Alyson played on Team Canada at the 2004 and 2008 World Ultimate Championships, where they won gold and bronze respectively, and was one of six women selected to play on Team Canada at the 2009 World Games in Taiwan, where they finished fourth. In 2009, she received the Canadian Ultimate Players Association’s (CUPA) inaugural award for Female Athlete of the Year.

Phew. And I haven’t even gotten to her other sports, or her professional achievements.

Alyson receives her silver medal at the 2010 U.S.A. Ultimate Championships

“I was privileged to start my ultimate career playing with Alyson in Canada in 2003. Not only is she a great mentor, but she’s also an amazing teammate. It’s not surprising that Alyson led her team to the finals of the American Ultimate Championships in 2010.” Geneviève Laroche, Fury, five-time U.S.A. National Champion, 2008 and 2010 World Champion (Team U.S.A.)

In spite of Alyson’s astounding track record in ultimate, she manages to make room for a very demanding career, as well as for fostering the development of women in sport throughout her community. “I’ve been very conscious of keeping my life going on the side, so that I didn’t all of a sudden find myself in a place where Frisbee was all I had,” she says.

She’s definitely achieved that goal. Alyson is currently the Executive Director of Marketing Partnerships for the Canadian Olympic Committee (COC). Before that, she was part of the Gemini-nominated CTV Olympic Broadcast team that provided unprecedented multi-platform coverage of the Vancouver 2010 Winter Olympic Games. When she took her MBA at the University of Toronto’s Rotman School of Business, she was named a Rotman Scholar in 2004 and won the Integrated Management Challenge in 2005.

The fact that I knew so little about Alyson’s professional accomplishments while playing with her is a testament to her humility. But it came as no surprise at all when I found out. She’s one of the hardest-working people I’ve ever met, and that sentiment is echoed by anyone I’ve heard talk about her, as an athlete and as a leader.

Alyson, playing for Capitals, goes up for the disc against Boston’s Brute Squad in the 2009 U.S.A. Ultimate Championship semi-final

“Alyson is one of those rare people who is liked by everyone she meets. Some may say that’s a gift, but really it’s the product of passion, integrity and hard work. Whereas many people lead by instilling fear or dominating, Alyson leads by example and compassion. Teammates, friends and colleagues follow her because they truly respect her and wish to emulate her. That’s the mark of a true leader.” Josée Guibord, Capitals (former co-captain), three-time Canadian National Champion

Many of Alyson’s friends ask if she has any secrets they can pass on to their daughters to help them thrive as she has. For her, it all stems from a childhood filled with sports.

Work hard, play hard

“Growing up was so much fun for me because I always had sports to focus on,” says Alyson. “In school, if I didn’t feel like the popular one, or I faced a particular challenge, I don’t think I liked it but it wasn’t a big deal because I could just go off and do some sort of sport. I’d be able to carry on without dwelling on the drama because I had something better to focus on.”

As a student at Kingston Collegiate & Vocational Institute (KCVI) in Ontario, that something better was soccer, volleyball, basketball, figure skating and national caliber rowing. Those sports taught her to be determined, and that “you have to work so hard to be good at something.” She also credits her parents for empowering her and her three brothers with a very strong work ethic. “They provided every opportunity to do everything we wanted, yet on the flip side, my brothers and I were never handed anything on a platter. It was very clear that you had to work to get what you want.”

Alyson (#13), playing for Capitals, goes up for a grab at the 2007 U.S.A. Ultimate Championships

Another favour Alyson’s parents did her was to take the family to Whistler when the kids were in their teens. The four Walker children spent a week there with family friends, learning to ski and helping out at the medical conference their father David was running. Alyson fell in love with the sport and the surroundings, and went back to Whistler immediately after graduating high school in 1992.

While living on the west coast, she met some people who sold her on the idea of tree planting, which she ended up doing in Northern Ontario for the following six summers. “Tree planting teaches you so many lessons,” she says. “You have to work hard, because you get paid per tree. And you’re a woman in a manual labour world, so you have to work for respect.”

Being a woman didn’t stop her from being one of the top performers on the job. Her drive earned her enough money to fund her undergraduate degree at McGill University. She studied anatomy and environmental science, while playing soccer and skiing for the varsity teams.

When she graduated in 1997, Alyson took off for Southeast Asia, then Europe. She finally landed in Switzerland, where she spent two years running a ski school for international students in the winters and working as a bicycle tour guide in the summers. “I knew all along that I wasn’t going to stay in that lifestyle, but it was just kind of part of me that I needed to experience.”

Eventually, Alyson started itching to get back to some of the other parts of her. At first, it was a variation on her Swiss job. She moved to Toronto, Ontario and found work as a trip planner at Butterfield & Robinson. It was while working at Butterfield that she met a women’s ultimate player, who introduced her to the sport.

While developing her Frisbee skills, Alyson realized she wanted to move even further from the guiding and trip planning side of things, and closer to the business end. She enrolled in the MBA program at the University of Toronto’s Rotman School of Management, a move she describes as “the best thing I could have ever done at that time in my life.” After graduating with honours in 2005, she spent a year as an associate at Royal Bank of Canada (RBC) Capital Markets. But a craving for a more creative professional outlet led her to the world of media.

Alyson cracked open the door to a new career avenue in her characteristic way: she put in the time and effort. “I did informational interviews with people from about 50 different organizations, and I took a career coaching course,” she says. “A lot of people think I’m lucky to have gotten where I am today, but I’ve always worked hard to get to where I end up.”

Ultimately, that was at CHUM Television (now CTV Television Inc., a division of Bell Media), where she picked up some significant know-how in the areas of digital and multi-platform media. Then, in 2008, she moved to Canada’s Olympic Broadcast Media Consortium (CTV Olympics), which led to one of the best experiences of her career to date.

Vancouver 2010

In her role as Senior Manager of Sponsorship and Syndication, Alyson was integral to the team that broke new ground in the coverage of live sporting events. At the 2010 Winter Games, CTV Olympics offered unprecedented online access to live feeds from five television stations, as well as 11 live world feed streams that captured segments of the events that weren’t typically picked up by the network stations. Every moment of sporting competition was streamed live on and CTV Olympics also made their live coverage available on mobile devices.

The experience allowed Alyson to be part of an innovative project that transformed the way Canadian fans engage with the Olympic Games. It also brought her a new appreciation for her country and what we have to offer. “The Olympic Games in Vancouver really heightened my pride as it pertains to being a Canadian, especially the diversity in this country and bringing everybody together,” she says. “At the COC, we talk about the team as being the fabric of Canada. There’s no other team that represents Canada as well as the Olympic Team; there’s a range of ethnic and cultural backgrounds, a mix of men and women from communities across the country.”

Alyson also felt a lasting shift in the nation’s sense of pride, both during and after the Games. “We’re finally changing from a country that wants to be excellent but is kind of embarrassed to say it, and starting to accept that we are in fact excellent.”

Alyson at the Vancouver 2010 Winter Olympic Games

Canadian Olympic Committee

Not long after the Games, Alyson was offered an amazing opportunity with the COC. As Executive Director of Marketing Partnerships, she’s responsible for managing the organization’s corporate partner relationships, including those with Bell, Hudson’s Bay Co. (Hbc), RBC, General Motors Canada, Petro-Canada and Rona. COC has a dual mandate to promote and support the Canadian Olympic Team, and to advance the Olympic Movement in Canada. Alyson is focused on collaborating with the COC’s partners to address both aspects of the mandate at once.

“We’re working with our corporate partners to create programs that allow them to extend their corporate and social responsibility messages, and to invest in the Olympic Team,” she says.

By engaging partners in developing programs around the COC’s core platforms—education and citizenship, diversity, innovation, sport, and health and wellness—Alyson hopes that her team will be able to facilitate initiatives that generate revenue for the Olympic athletes, increase awareness for the Olympic Movement across Canada, and promote the good work being done by the sponsors. “We want to create sustainable programs wherein the athletes are ambassadors for the Olympics and for our partners. In the end, everybody wins.”

Training for life

Alyson’s ability to succeed, and to help bring success to others, is something she attributes almost entirely to athletics, and in particular, to her experience as both a player and a coach in ultimate. “All the lessons you learn on the field are transferable to the workplace. It’s all about the team. With ultimate, you look at how to take 20 to 25 women, who all have different lives, different backgrounds, different levels of confidence, different skills, and put them together in some sort of way that allows them to achieve a common goal. And not just win one game, but win a series of games throughout the season, under a range of different pressures.”

Alyson, playing for Capitals, lays out for the disc at the 2007 U.S.A. Ultimate Championships

“Alyson kicks more ass on a daily basis than everyone else I know put together, and does it in true Canadian style. Her presence transforms the people around her; she is a dedicated teacher, an inspiring leader and a fierce competitor. Alyson demands the best of herself, brings it out in others, and does it all with a smile on her face. She is a humble winner and a gracious loser, but to those who know her, she is always a champion.” Kristin Laurin, Capitals (co-captain), Canadian National Champion

Thanks to her vast experience with ultimate, she says she’s much more confident in dealing with challenges on the job. “When I go into big meetings, I feel like: ‘I’ve been here before, I’ve been in a big situation and I can handle this.’ I use my lessons learned from sport all the time. Whether at work or on the field, it’s all about the same things: determination, hard work and preparation.”

As Alyson moves forward with the COC, she’s stepping back from her leadership role with Capitals. “It’s time to let the young gals on the team lead the way,” she says. “I have every confidence that they have what it takes to win us the Championship this year.” She’s referring to the 2011 Canadian Ultimate Championships, which will be held in Ottawa, Ontario in August; if Capitals take top spot, they’ll have won the opportunity to represent Canada at the 2012 World Ultimate Championships.

Although she won’t co-captain the team, she’ll still be cleating up as #13 on Capitals this summer, and plans to continue being involved with ultimate at the highest level. She’s seen the benefits of staying active, involved and competitive, and knows how important it is to her well-being. “I think it’s extremely important for women to have avenues for building self-confidence, independence and empowerment—attributes that allow them to thrive in their everyday life. Sport isn’t the only way, but it’s one of them.”

Alyson is dismayed by the dwindling emphasis on activity and athletics in our school system, and hopes that she and the COC will be able to shed light on the importance of physical literacy, particularly for girls and women. “Sports were always so accessible to me when I was in school, but I don’t think that’s the case anymore. It’s so important to start early with young women, and really provide physical activity as an avenue to build confidence, strength and leadership skills… You’re less worried about things like appearance and popularity when you spend time enjoying and pursuing other things.”

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For more on Alyson, check out her LinkedIn profile. You can also email [email protected] or follow @alysonwalker on Twitter.

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